Mind the gap

Paul Robertson looks at the outdated perception of vocational education and the role T-Levels could play in addressing skills shortages reported among many sectors.

Whenever you speak to businesses in whatever sector – but particularly areas like engineering and manufacturing – one of the first issues to be raised is the skills gap. An ageing working population, fast-paced changes in technology and an education system which has been geared towards universities for a generation has long been talked about but never addressed.

For too long vocational education has been seen as the poor relation, with technical and practical ability not given the same priority as academic qualifications. Yet, apprenticeships are a proven route into many careers, earning while learning and building up an experience without the burden of debt befalling many of their graduate peers.

Successive governments have tinkered with the system but still apprenticeships are seen as inferior to degree programmes.
In countries like Germany, engineers are held in the same esteem as professionals like GPs in the UK, but here too many have an image as an apprentice being low-skilled and only in those jobs because they weren’t clever enough to go to university.

The Industry Apprentice Council has firmly established itself as the voice of apprentices with members regularly invited to address ministers, MPs, peers and leaders in both business and education. Founded by EAL, the awarding organisation for industry and now run by its sister organisation Semta, which is charged with skilling the workforce of the future, the IAC is made up of young apprentices from across the country. It undertakes an annual survey. Previous surveys have highlighted problems in the system and the importance of ensuring apprenticeships are recognised with professional accreditation.

Key findings of the 2016 survey, in which more than 1,500 apprentices took part, included:

  • Careers advice is still in crisis
  • 50% of respondents found out about their apprenticeship through their own initiative – just 15% found out from a teacher or careers adviser
  • Only 24% of apprentices were actively encouraged to take up an apprenticeship by educators
  • 75% want a professional accreditation as standard

Their message is echoed by others. Bruce Dickinson, lead singer of Iron Maiden and an advocate for engineering said in a BBC interview: “Teachers need to be more inspirational. But it’s also up to engineering to make itself more interesting.

“Engineering stimulates the mind. Kids get bored easily. They have got to get out and get their hands dirty: make things, dismantle things, fix things. When the schools can offer that, you’ll have an engineer for life.”

Arguably its views like this which are the driver for the latest attempt to reform vocational education, which comes in the form of so-called T-Levels, with £500m from the Chancellor’s recent Budget dedicated to introducing a robust system for linking qualifications with real worktime skills.

Employer-led, as they must be if they are to be adopted as credible, most commentators have welcomed the initiative as a potential game-changer. Under the new system, each learner will undergo 900 hours of training – 50% more than is currently the case – as well as completing a three-month work placement as part of their course.

It is an opportunity not just for school leavers but also for those NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Employment) to kickstart their careers.

So what do we know so far? Between now and 2022, 15 new pathways will be developed in 15 sector areas where substantial technical training is required to progress into employment. These new routes are currently being developed; the first ‘pathfinder’ routes are planned for teaching in September 2019.

The 15 sectors covered encompass a range of occupations, each of which will have qualifications which are pertinent to the jobs within each sector. They are: Agriculture; Environmental and Animal Care; Business and Administrative; Catering and Hospitality; Childcare and Education; Construction; Creative and Design; Digital; Engineering and Manufacturing; Hair and Beauty; Health and Science; Legal, Finance and Accounting; Protective Services; Sales, Marketing and Procurement; Social Care; Transport and Logistics.

Employer-led panels will develop new ‘standards’ that will underpin the technical routes; these standards will underpin both the T-Levels and apprenticeships.

For this to work it needs a concerted effort by employers, Government, careers advisers and training providers to educate young people and their influencers – teachers and parents – as to the benefits of following this route.

The fact you can now start an apprenticeship and end up with a degree and even a doctorate, is an attractive selling point.
Industry needs bright graduates but equally it needs high-quality, highly-skilled professionals. For the sake of UK plc everyone will be hoping this latest reform will finally place vocational education alongside academic progression as a pathway to a great career.